I have a long sleeve shirt that says “Enjoy Karma” on it.
I like it because it’s written in the same classic font as Coca Cola and therefore cheekily refers to the famous “Enjoy Coca Cola” ad and I can’t resist a good yogic pun. (Or any pun, for that matter.)
But I also like it because I myself do enjoy and try to live a karmic life.
So, what is karma?
According to Google, aka all things holy and true, this sanskrit noun stems from both Hinduism and Buddhism and reflects “the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.”
Essentially, what you do and give, will be what you become and receive in return—be it good or bad.
Or, even more simply: What goes around comes around.
All too often we focus on the negative and complain about what we don’t have, as opposed to being thankful—boastful, even (God forbid!)—about what we do have. (Guilty!) Doing so likely attracts more negative vibes, in which case if we were to spread positive vibes more often then we’d all experience a lot more love and light and joy in our lives.
Of course, I know it’s not that simple and life runs on dollar bills, oil, politics and practicality as opposed to smiles, unicorns and the plain old air we inhale and exhale, but small, little mindful gestures do indeed go a long way. At least, that’s what I continue to tell myself and, sometimes, discover.
This brings me to the concept of “karma yoga.” Many studios all over the world offer this quid-pro-quo system to yogis who want to practice regularly, but for whatever reason struggle financially with doing so. Or, doing so as often as one would like. (Like, say, freelance writers who live in Paris.) Essentially, you work in the studio—be it checking people in at the front desk, rolling up mats, making tea, etc.—and in return, you get to practice gratuit (free).
Until I got back from my Southeast Asia trip in early March, there were no such opportunities available to me here in Paris. Instead, I managed to get by on package deals or class passes in order to afford practicing as often as I do. Then, one day a few weeks ago, after taking class at a lovely studio near the Champs Elysées that up until then I’d been avoiding because of its out-of-the-way location that’s also teaming with tourists, one of my favorite teachers mentioned that the owner of the studio was looking for someone to work the front desk the following week.
A few emails were sent, calls were made and voila! Next thing I knew I had my very own key to the studio, inside which I began preparing green tea, learning the Mind/Body computer program and practicing the word for changing room (vestiaire) and the phrase for “put your shoes over there” (mettre vos chaussaures la). I’m still working on confidently explaining the difference between Hatha and Vinyasa in French, but I honestly don’t know if I really get it in English either…
Which brings me to my most recent karmic gesture: That time I ended up teaching a Vinyasa class to 11 unsuspecting yogis at said studio.
I know what you’re wondering: Have I become a certified yoga instructor some time over the past few months?
The answer is no. But before any of you certified teachers go getting your Lululemons in a bunch let me say this: One, I have been regularly practicing yoga for over 10 years. Two, in the “old days,” says my Aunt Jonnie, herself a certified yoga instructor, “that’s exactly how lineage grew. Yoga ‘teacher training’ is a new concept for a thousands of years old tradition.”
To be fair, I think she and I both know if I were to truly become a yoga teacher in today’s time there’s still a fair amount to learn—be it through osmosis or a legit 200-hour program—including sanskrit and anatomy and various yogic philosophies. Not to mention proper sequencing and timing and a whole host of other requirements that help prepare yogis for leading others safely through a flow.
But on the fly? Well hot for teacher! I managed just fine.
So how did this happen? I was working the front desk with another girl as I now do on Thursdays, and as the clock ticked closer and closer to the 12:30 start time, we began to worry since the teacher had yet to arrive. Usually, it’s the aforementioned favorite, Amanda Dates, and I’m one of at least a dozen yogis who unroll their mat for her Thursday Bhakti flow. But there was a sub that day. At least there was supposed to be a sub that day.
When 12:30 rolled around and we still had no teacher, we began texting the owner of the studio.
The clock continued to tick as we waited for her to reply.
Ten minutes in and 11 yogis were patiently waiting in the other room as we scrambled to figure out a solution. Once we connected, I suggested that I attempt to lead the class.
“Go for it,” she wrote back, knowing I have a strong practice. I also took some comfort in the fact that she herself had done this once before, despite also not possessing official teaching credentials. Then again, it’s her studio! Still, she seemed to trust and have confidence in me and my ability to turn a shitty situation into something salvageable so off I went into the other room…
“Sooooo,” I started to say, (in English, by they way. There was no way I was attempting this in French) “we have a bit of a situation.”
I gave them two options: One, leave and get this class for free, plus another for the inconvenience. Two, stay and practice with me as I attempt to lead them through a flow. (Plus, get another class on the house.)
Everyone in the room opted to stay.
Right. I thought to myself, glancing at the clock. I’ve now got 60 minutes. Now what?
Without any sort of plan, I nervously dragged my mat from the first row to the front of the room, perpendicular to everyone else’s as most teachers do.
I asked them to begin in a seated position and start acknowledging the breath with their eyes closed. I did it along with them, as the thought of staring at all of them with their eyes closed felt invasive. Then, surprising even myself, I suggested we start by chanting “Om” together three times. This meant I’d be the one to make the first sound. Even when I’m om-ing in a class, I’m worried about how it’ll sound when it first comes out—too high, too low, a crack in the voice—and now I’d be setting the tone! It was almost as if my body and mouth were moving ahead of my brain; directing them before really processing what I was actually suggesting.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who chanted and I don’t think I sounded like a dead animal.
From there, I led them through sun salutation after sun salutation, counting three breaths per movement from Warrior 1 to 2 to side angle to triangle to half-moon with a vinyasa (plank, chaturanga, updog, downdog) in between.
It was odd to hear the sound of my own voice as I spoke and counted aloud: Inhale 1, exhale. Inhale 2, exhale. Inhale 3, exhale. I often thought about how and why teachers decide to count and choose the rhythm and phrasing they do.
Was I counting too fast? I wondered. Too slow?
It was hard to know since I couldn’t necessarily count and breath along with them at the same time. It’d sort of be like that rub your belly and pat your head game. Just doesn’t work. That said, the only way for me to remember what I’d done on each side was to move from pose to pose myself as I called them out. Thankfully, that was more doable—until I nearly launched into a coughing fit as a result of my having popped three almonds into my belly before the class since it was lunchtime and I didn’t think I’d be using my voice!
Eventually, I regained my composure, but I got to a point where I couldn’t think of what pose to do next. Usually, teachers come in knowing the sequence they’ll teach, working towards what’s called a “peak pose”—a powerful asana that you prepare for with preliminary asanas that strengthen your body for such a feat.
But I was literally just going with the flow here. My priority was making sure everyone was even on both sides, I knew my right from my left and no one injured themselves.
Drawing a blank, I asked the class if anyone had any requests.
“Twists?” someone called out.
Yes, twists! Of course, I thought to myself, before suddenly remembering the dreaded utkatasana, or seated chair posture, which involves squatting—knees bent, butt back, arms up—in an uncomfortable, yet strong position before twisting left and right.
Just when I thought there’d be no way I could fill the hour, I was propelled forward into a whole bunch of other postures that I can only hope didn’t seem completely out of place or ill-timed.
Before I knew it, we had about 15 minutes left. I brought them to the floor, leading them through seated postures and a few light backbends. Then I told them to take any closing poses they’d like to take—a shoulder stand or headstand, as is often desired at the end of a Vinyasa class—and also offered a restorative posture of supta baddha konasana, with one hand on their belly and another on their heart, taking a cue again from teachers who offer this sweet gesture.
Oddly enough, this was one of the few poses I could recall in sanskrit, despite being able to decipher so many of them when called out in class. I guess I’d just never spoken many of them out loud before and the thought of doing so other than in my head seemed risky for fear of mixing up a consonant with a vowel or vice versa.
Finally, I called out svasana—that one everyone knows—final resting pose.
As they each settled in, I started to wonder what to do myself. Does the teacher normally just sit there watching everyone splayed out with their eyes closed? Should I meditate? I can’t watch the clock, that’s for sure. But how do I know when to end?
I tried to calm my mind by sitting in a seated posture, breathing lightly. I kept my eyes closed. Then open. Then closed again for a minute. Or was it only 30 seconds? Who knows, but time passed and eventually I had them wiggle their toes and wake the body up; calling out more instructions I’ve heard from all my teachers over the years.
Adam. Derek. Nadia. Arnold. Jen. Kay Kay. Benoit. Klara. Amanda.
I brought them back to a seated position and once again suggested we close by chanting om together three times. I felt a bit more confident going into these, and after the last one, thanked all of them for staying and practicing with me. While this is something yoga teachers always say at the end, it couldn’t have been more true at this moment. Then I sealed the practice with the requisite “Namaste.”
I bow to the divine in you.
As if a switch had been flipped from the zen to the HOLY CRAP, once I lifted my head I sheepishly asked aloud: “Was that OK???”
That’s when they all clapped. I smiled, cheeks flushed—from pride and also from having just led an hour-plus flow while actually doing said hour-plus flow—and thanked them again.
I felt such a joyful rush and glow. While I’d contemplated becoming a teacher before, I’d shooed the thought away for several reasons. For one, it’s super expensive. But mostly, I’m afraid to let go of allowing myself the freedom to let go in this way. In other words, yoga is the one thing in my life that someone else controls, in a way. Yes, I get myself to class and propel myself to actually practice. But it’s not work. Or at least not work in the sense that I’m making money from it or stressing out about it. All I have to do is show up and surrender.
I never thought I’d be one of those yogis who would want to participate in a teacher training just to “expand my practice.” In fact, I always laughed at this idea when teachers mentioned it. Spend all that time studying, and pay all that money not to teach? I scoffed.
But these days that sounds just delightful. If only these were ancient times and karma teacher training was such a thing.
The next day, when Amanda got wind that I taught her class, she messaged me on Facebook.
“Heard you have a new career as a yoga teacher! What?” alongside two smiley face emojis.
I was nervous she’d be appalled that I, an “untrained” yogi (in the official sense), led her class—especially since she herself leads a training program here in Paris.
But she wasn’t. In fact, she said she was grateful. As a thank you, she invited me to join her and her trainee group at a two-hour talk on Aryurveda. I’d heard the term before, but wasn’t entirely sure what it was or how it relates to yoga, so I happily accepted her kind offer.
The karma circle continued to turn.
Upon arriving at the studio, I immediately felt out of place. All the other yogis had been training and practicing together for months, and here I was, some girl swooping in for the night, having taught a class likely before any of them. Thankfully, they were lovely and welcoming and the discussion itself was absolutely fascinating. I wish I could properly explain the world’s oldest holistic medicine practice to you, but I’m only just wrapping my brain around it myself.
I can say, however, that when leaving the studio that night it felt like my karma to continue to learn it. The same goes for yoga. In which case, if I continue to practice and learn, there will always be people for those new teachers to guide. And if there’s always new teachers to guide, yoga—mindful movement through union—will continue to spread. And if mindful movement through union continues to spread, well then we’ll all be sipping a refreshing glass of karma. Let’s enjoy it.